Del Norte Superior Court Presiding Judge Judge WIlliam H. Follett will be leaving the bench at the end of 2018, after 18 years on the bench.
Follett said he cannot talk about specific cases he has ruled on, but agreed to sit down for an interview Thursday.
As of the interview, Follett also said he had not heard the explanations for the sudden resignation of District Attorney Dale Trigg Thursday, and withheld comment on the matter.
Follett came to Crescent City right out of law school. He also lived in the Virgin Islands where he worked as a public information officer for a school system and was the editor of a small daily newspaper.
Before being a judge, Follett practiced law in Crescent City for 20 years, partnered with Phil Schaffer.
His retirement will mark 36 years, to the week, from when he first came to Crescent City.
“By the end of my career, I was representing a lot of government agencies here in town, such as the Harbor District and the Solid Waste Management Authority, and several of the community services districts,” he said.
Follett said he wants to spend more time with his family. His two daughters are both English teachers, one works in San Jose and the other, in Spain.
“My wife and I have always loved to travel and with a daughter who lives in Europe, we have a place to stay when we go over there,” he said. “So we’ll be doing a lot of that.”
Follett said he may also remain available to fill in for other local judges as needed. He explained the state has its assigned judges program, wherein judges can fill in for others on their own schedule, based on what they are best qualified to do.
“I want to retire because I want to retire,” he said, “but I wouldn’t mind doing that somewhat and being a judge here, it’s sometimes difficult to find a replacement judge when you want to go on vacation or to conferences and such.
“The election to replace me will be in June of next year,” he said, “but that’s not when I retire. It will be another six months after that.”
Asked to recall any highlights of his career, Follett thought for a moment before saying he is currently involved in something he is quite proud of.
“I run a drug court and I think I have done a lot of good in the drug court,” he said. “A lot has happened on the last 17 years. Marijuana is now legal. We went through the medical marijuana and now, total legalization. “Methamphetamine really came into prominence since I’ve been on the bench. We were told that once you get hooked on meth, you can never get off it, and we found that’s not true.”
Follett explained that drug court uses evidence-based practices to help those willing to make the commitment to clean up their lives from addiction.
“We use sanctions and encouragement and we work closely with the county’s alcohol and other drugs program to get them treatment,” he explained. “We make them test weekly, or more often, and we bring them to court when they get started and make them talk to me to find out how their recovery is doing, what their plans are, what their family life is like, whether they have a job and whether they have a driver’s license.”
He said the program also teaches accountability and will immediately send people to jail for about a week for failing drug tests.
“Then we bring them back and get them started on a relapse program,” he said. “We’ve learned that addicts are addicts and they are sometimes going to relapse, so we try to get them through a year of sobriety. I think we have helped redeem lots and lots of people who are now productive members of society.”
Follett said he occasionally runs into people who have gone through the drug court and continue to be successful.
“Every once in awhile someone will stop me, reach in their pocket and pull out their coin for four years with (Narcotics Anonymous),” he said. “That’s very rewarding.”
Follett disclosed he and others are working to establish a mental health court to address a recent gradual rise in the number of mental health cases.
“I’m very pleased with the reception that we’ve gotten from various agencies,” he said, listing social services, The Del Norte County District Attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office, county probation and others. He said the program would be based on the drug court model, combining treatment, sanctions and court visits to ensure people are taking medications as prescribed and are following through with treatment center staff visits.
“Sometimes, it just takes a judge saying ‘Attaboy,” he said. “Research has shown that in this type of alternative court model that the authority figure, the judge, offering encouragement, almost being like a stern father, has a tremendous impact on the success of somebody in a court like that.”
Asked about any frustrations or difficulties that recur for him as a judge, Follett said in some cases, he can be his own worst critic, having to evaluate the reasons why a decision may be good or bad for those involved.
“California Rules of Court lists seven different objectives of sentencing,” he said. “It says right in there that those objectives of sentencing may often be at odds with each other. So, for instance, rehabilitation might be one of the objectives and another is keeping society safe, another is punishment and another is setting a lesson for others. So, if you want to rehabilitate someone, you don’t send them to prison. The obligation of a judge is to consider those factors and the facts and circumstances of the case and the qualities of the person standing in front of you. Then, it’s the judge’s job to say ‘How are you going to apply all of this and determine this particular case?’ That can be very difficult.”
Budget and funding issues and jail space have been frustrating for Follett, who said he sometimes sends people to jail only to have them return to the court later in street clothes, rather than jail clothes.
“That’s really frustrating,” he said. “I don’t blame anyone for that. It’s just that there’s not enough funding to operate the jail at its full capacity.”
Funding attorneys for juvenile dependency cases, where kids are removed from families for their protection, has been difficult and frustrating for him as well, he said, noting that without the proper help, affected kids often return to court as adult defendants.
Follett said he has seen many changes in the local court system, not the least of which has been the legalization of marijuana.
“The first time I had to order the police to return some marijuana to someone was such a shock,” he said smiling, “but it was medical marijuana and sometimes we had to do that and it’s not a shock anymore.”
Meth was a huge felony issue in the past, he said, but now it’s a misdemeanor violation. Follett said a majority of the jury trials years ago were meth-related but it’s now rare to see a meth case reach the courtroom. While meth is still out there, the county is now seeing increased opiates and heroin that it hadn’t before, he said.
Follett noted Pelican Bay State Prison also changed the workloads for court staff, as a prisoner may seek a Writ of Habeas corpus, when they feel unfairly treated at the prison. He said he spent many hours on such cases, which decreased when the facility changed how it held prisoners in its Special Housing Unit (SHU).
“We still get crimes out there and those are heard in court but they’re basically treated like other criminal cases,” he said.
“It’s been an honor to serve the community,” he said, “It’s a lot of responsibility and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to do it.”
Noting that he will be 69 at the time of his retirement, Follett said said he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue working through another six-year term. He said his family helped him decide over Christmas to retire and travel. He and his wife are cancer survivors and would like to take advantage of their good health and the opportunities of retirement.